Almost everybody that I coach tells me the same thing, “I know I need to make some changes but I don’t know if I can do it.” Businesses commonly tell me, “We want to achieve ______ but we’re not sure if that can work in our business.”
Today I want to talk about a theory introduced by psychologists Prochaska and DiClemente in the 1970’s as they studied methods that helped some smokers to be able to quit while others were unable. This theory is called the Stages of Change Model. This model talks about the stages we go through in the process of making a change to our actions. This model has become so popular that it has been used to help people overcome problems with substance abuse, weight loss, marital strife, gambling, and a host of other destructive habits.The idea behind the Stages of Change Model is that behavior change does not happen in one step. Rather, people tend to progress through different stages on their way to successful change. Also, each of us progresses through the stages at our own rate. Is there something in your life you would like to change? A bad habit you would like to leave behind? Let’s see what stage you are in and how to progress.
- Pre-contemplation (Not yet acknowledging that there is a problem behavior that needs to be changed)
- Contemplation (Acknowledging that there is a problem but not yet ready or sure of wanting to make a change)
- Preparation/Determination (Getting ready to change)
- Action/Willpower (Changing behavior)
- Maintenance (Maintaining the behavior change)
- Relapse (Returning to older behaviors and abandoning the new changes)
Stage One: Precontemplation
In the precontemplation stage, people are not thinking seriously about changing and are not interested in any kind of help. People in this stage tend to defend their current bad habit(s) and do not feel it is a problem.
They may be defensive in the face of other people’s efforts to pressure them to quit. In AA, this stage is called “denial,” but I like to think that in this stage people just do not yet see themselves as having a problem.
Are you in the precontemplation stage? Probably not. The fact that you are still reading this shows that you are already ready to consider that you may have a problem with one or more bad habits.
Stage Two: Contemplation
In the contemplation stage people are more aware of the personal consequences of their bad habit and they spend time thinking about their problem. Although they are able to consider the possibility of changing, they tend to be ambivalent about it. In this stage, people are on a teeter-totter, weighing the pros and cons of quitting or modifying their behavior. Although they think about the negative aspects of their bad habit and the positives associated with giving it up (or reducing), they may doubt that the long-term benefits associated with quitting will outweigh the short-term costs.
It might take as little as a couple weeks or as long as a lifetime to get through the contemplation stage. (In fact, some people think and think and think about giving up their bad habit and may die never having gotten beyond this stage) On the plus side, people are more open to receiving information about their bad habit, and more likely to actually use educational interventions and reflect on their own feelings and thoughts concerning their bad habit.
Stage Three: Preparation/Determination
In the preparation/determination stage, people have made a commitment to make a change. Their motivation for changing is reflected by statements such as: “I’ve got to do something about this – this is serious. Something has to change. What can I do?”
This is sort of a research phase: people are now taking small steps toward cessation. They are trying to gather information (sometimes by reading things like this) about what they will need to do to change their behavior. Or they will call a lot of clinics, trying to find out what strategies and resources are available to help them in their attempt.
Too often, people skip this stage: they try to move directly from contemplation into action and fall flat on their faces because they haven’t adequately researched or accepted what it is going to take to make this major lifestyle change.
This is the stage where people believe they have the ability to change their behavior and are actively involved in taking steps to change their bad behavior by using a variety of different techniques. This is the shortest of all the stages. The amount of time people spend in action varies. It generally lasts about 6 months, but it can literally be as short as one hour! This is a stage when people most depend on their own willpower. They are making overt efforts to quit or change the behavior and are at greatest risk for relapse.
Maintenance involves being able to successfully avoid any temptations to return to the bad habit. The goal of the maintenance stage is to maintain the new status quo. People in this stage tend to remind themselves of how much progress they have made. People in maintenance constantly reformulate the rules of their lives and are acquiring new skills to deal with life and avoid relapse. They are able to anticipate the situations in which a relapse could occur and prepare coping strategies in advance. They remain aware that what they are striving for is personally worthwhile and meaningful. They are patient with themselves and recognize that it often takes a while to let go of old behavior patterns and practice new ones until they are second nature to them. Even though they may have thoughts of returning to their old bad habits, they resist the temptation and stay on track.
Along the way to permanent cessation or stable reduction of a bad habit, most people experience relapse. In fact, it is much more common to have at least one relapse than not. Relapse is often accompanied by feelings of discouragement and seeing oneself as a failure. While relapse can be discouraging, the majority of people who successfully quit do not follow a straight path to a life time free of self-destructive bad habits. Rather, they cycle through the five stages several times before achieving a stable life style change.
Consequently, the Stages of Change Model considers relapse to be normal. There is a real risk that people who relapse will experience an immediate sense of failure that can seriously undermine their self-confidence. The important thing is that if they do slip they shouldn’t see themselves as having failed. Rather, they should analyze how the slip happened and use it as an opportunity to learn how to cope differently. In fact, relapses can be important opportunities for learning and becoming stronger.
Eventually, if you “maintain maintenance” long enough, you will reach a point where you will be able to work with your emotions and understand your own behavior and view it in a new light. This is the stage of “transcendence,” a transcendence to a new life. In this stage, not only is your bad habit no longer an integral part of your life but to return to it would seem atypical, abnormal, even weird to you. When you reach this point in your process of change, you will know that you have transcended the old bad habits and that you are truly becoming a new “you”, who no longer needs the old behaviors to sustain yourself.
Your challenge for today is to look at any habits you would like to change or areas in your life you would like to improve. Then figure out which step of the cycle you are currently in regarding that habit. Once you know where you are, follow the steps to progress from one level to the next until you have successfully made the change and transcended into an improved life. Best of luck!
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